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Coal Ash Spill Fouls North Carolina's Dan River

The coal ash spill, 82,000 tons as of Feb. 8 after being detected on Feb. 2, comes from a pond adjacent to a closed, coal-burning Duke Energy power plant. It is said not to pose a threat to drinking water, though the river has turned black and grey.
February 8, 2014, 11am PST | Irvin Dawid
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Coal ash is what is left after coal is burned to produce energy in power plants. The spill of wet coal ash or slury, which had yet to be stopped as of press time, comes just four years after one of the nation's worst environmental disasters in Kingston, Tenn. when a massive flood of toxic coal ash spilled from a containment pond of a Tennessee Valley Authority coal power plant.

The spill comes while West Virginia is still recovering from a Jan. 9 chemical spill in the Elk River that caused 300,000 residents in nine counties to go without drinking water. The chemical was used to prepare coal for burning.

"The river has its headwaters in the Blue Ridge Mountains, meanders along the North Carolina-Virginia state line and supplies water to downriver cities such as Danville, Va., to the east," write Valerie Bauerlein and Cassandra Sweet.

So far the spill hasn't affected quality of drinking water because the solid material generally is caught in intake filters, local water managers said. But it has riled environmentalists, some of whom picketed this week in front of Duke's Charlotte headquarters, about 130 miles southwest.

The Los Angeles Times reports that an environmental group, Waterkeeper Alliance, claims the spill has impacted drinking water quality. The group "said its tests of water collected just yards from the spill site here showed dangerous level of toxins, including arsenic, chromium, lead, iron and other heavy metals. Arsenic levels in the samples were 35 times higher than the maximum containment level set by the Environmental Protection Agency for drinking water." See Waterkeeper Alliance photos of the spill.

"Environmentalists want ash to be regulated as a hazardous material", pointing to the trace amounts of mercury, arsenic and selenium, write Bauerlein and Sweet. However, the "energy industry has fought the hazardous waste designation, noting coal ash contains natural materials present in soil and rock."

Environmentalists have also "called for old coal ash to be moved to lined underground dumps, as is common at newer coal plants." That measure would appear to make much sense considering the current case suit against Duke Energy.

North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources sued Duke in state court last spring alleging that the company's coal storage sites violated existing standards for water quality and posed "a serious danger to the health, safety and welfare of the people of North Carolina.". The case is ongoing.

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Published on Friday, February 7, 2014 in The Wall Street Journal - U.S.
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